Friday, August 23, 2019

Atlas Shrugged: Good Ideas to Take in Moderation

Sam Spencer ’21

Contributing Writer

When Scottish poet Robert Burns was plowing his fields, he accidentally destroyed a mouse nest with the plow-head. Realizing that he had inadvertently ruined the mice’s only protection from the winter, he penned one of his most famous works called “To a Mouse.” This poem explores the unpredictability of life as well as the limitations of good intentions. According to Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men do often go awry.”  Two centuries later, a Russian immigrant named Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged which explores similar themes.

In this work of fiction, Rand explores the philosophical movement she calls Objectivism.  In her view, “the concept of man [is] a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”  Throughout the book she portrays Ultraism as fundamentally misguided. According to Rand, society would function optimally if everyone were to prioritize their own self-interest above all else. The only role of the government is to facilitate the right of the individual to fulfill their own personal desires through the accumulation of wealth. Rand is also an ardent supporter of meritocracy. In her view, the most qualified people should be in positions of power. Race, gender, family background, and social class are all irrelevant to an optimally functioning society.

Since its publication, the book has remained popular with libertarians and proponents of the free market alike. Even though I identify with both groups, I struggle to agree with the extremes that Rand proposes. In my opinion, altruism is one of the best elements of the human condition. Throughout my life, I have benefited from the kindness of others. Furthermore, I also firmly believe that some degree of government intervention is necessary to keep free markets running efficiently. Rand is staunchly opposed to any sort of antitrust regulation. Yet, there is much historical precedent to prove that some regulation is prevents abuse. While I do not agree with some assertions, I do agree with others. I think she makes an extremely compelling argument for meritocracy, as well as self-sufficiency. As is often the case with philosophers, I believe that their arguments have some merit, but do not agree completely.

In the book David and Goliath, researcher and author Malcom Gladwell explores general perceptions of what is advantageous. In the Biblical narrative, many assume that David was the underdog in comparison to the gargantuan soldier. However, Gladwell argues that this is not the case; Goliath was too big for his own good. In an atmosphere where speed and agility are beneficial, he was cumbersome and lumbering.  Effectively, he was a giant target.  Up to a point, larger stature is advantageous, then it starts to be a detriment. Gladwell goes on to apply this parabolic returns curve to most aspects of life. Whether it be student-to-teacher ratios or proximity to a bomb detonation, returns are not linear.

This theory also can be applied to the ideas of Ayn Rand.  Recently, the BBC published an article that explored the high universal basic income in certain Scandinavian countries and found that they did little to decrease unemployment.  In some cases, it actually increased unemployment. Smaller scale experiments in the United States have corroborated these findings.  Based on these findings, it might make sense to cut social safety programs. However, that too would be ineffectual. Similar research indicates that some welfare programs such as food stamps and short-term unemployment benefits have a high rate of return. Instead of treating welfare like a binary option, it would behoove policy makers and voters alike to recognize that it is a complex issue that involves finding the correct level of funding. Arguably, the parabolic returns curve could be applied to many problems facing United States policymakers. Perhaps recognizing that  complex problems have complex solutions would help to mend the partisan rift and help move America forward.                          

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